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June 23, 2002 Anchorage Daily News on secret legislative meetings

Posted: Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Alaska's congenital legislative dysfunction has many causes, but one of the most important is the clubby and self-righteous secrecy with which both houses of the Legislature do business.

Closed caucus meetings are such a way of life in the Capitol that hardly anybody remarks on them anymore, but they're still bad for democracy, bad for policy, bad for Alaskans and, ultimately, bad for the legislators who indulge in them.

The results speak for themselves. Virtually nothing but show-trials happens in public in the Capitol any more. During this year's legislative session, every major decision on every major issue was calculated in closed caucus meetings before going to the floor for a formal vote. And it's not working. How could it?

The fundamental rule in a democracy is consent of the governed. This demands transparency and knowledge at all times. The presumption is always that deliberations must be open -- to build trust, understanding and acceptance among the citizens. These things just can't grow in the dark. For a time, if the legislative results are good enough, a democratic people may be willing to put its trust in a closed process -- but not for long. In Alaska, the results aren't good enough and the process isn't open enough. No wonder the results are bad and the people don't trust them.

There are some things, in the balances of representative democracy, that shouldn't be divulged. There are good reasons to keep some deliberations secret -- personnel or privacy matters, security concerns, adverse impacts on the state's finances. Taking counsel privately regarding these things is just prudent discretion. It actually builds trust.

But no one believes the Alaska Legislature limits itself to these circumstances when it goes into closed caucus meetings. The wrong reason for secrecy -- political calculations and concerns -- is overwhelmingly the real reason for closing the meetings. It substitutes self-interested calculation for honest public discourse. It elevates internal power politics above public accountability. It cheapens and often overturns the inquiry, research, testimony and analysis of proper committee processes. It robs the Legislature of its legitimacy and denies the citizens their proper connection to power.

Not much has gone well in Juneau in recent years. The state's finances are dicier than ever. Subsistence solutions are nearly a lost cause. Special legislative sessions happen because the normal work doesn't get done -- not because of special emergencies. And the big decisions -- day in and day out, all session long -- are made in the dark, where accountability is impossible.

Advocates of open government are sometimes knocked as being overly idealistic or impractical. By now it should be clear that just the opposite is true. Secrecy has become an ingrained habit in Juneau -- and it turns out to be the most impractical thing of all.

Democracy just can't, in the long run, make good decisions in the dark. The Alaska Legislature is Exhibit A illustrating the principle. This year when your favorite candidate comes around to court your vote, an excellent question would be a simple one: Do you believe in good old American democracy enough to make the real decisions out in the open?

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